A FIRST half header from Chris Fawcett was enough to give Whitley Bay FC the three points against Stokesley and extend their winning run to seven games.
Following their promotion last season this was the first time the visitors had played at Hillheads and in the first half they looked overawed by the occasion.
Only some outstanding saves by keeper Robert Dean prevented them from going in at least five goals down at the break.
The second half was a more even contest but Whitley still had chances to extend their lead before the visitors staged a spirited finish and caused a few anxious moments for Bay fans.
Whitley’s starting line-up showed seven changes from the side that defeated Dunstable the previous week’s FA Vase game, with youngsters Lee Mason and Glen Taylor given their chance up front while defender Steve Gibson returned after suspension.
Persistent rain which had resulted in the postponement of several Northern League games eased before kick-off, and thanks to the efforts of ground staff, the Hillheads pitch, although heavy, was playable, and puddles which had been lying in the goalmouths two hours earlier had drained away.
Right from the start, Fawcett troubled the Stokesley defence with his pace down the left wing and when, with less than four minutes played, he was clumsily tripped in a mistimed tackle by Karl Liley, the referee immediately showed the defender a yellow card.
The Stokesley defence were panicking and seemed to lack confidence in their keeper, on several occasions heading the ball away even though he had called for the ball.
He soon showed his ability with a good reaction save after Taylor’s header had been diverted goalwards by Mason from less than six yards out.
Whitley kept up the pressure and it seemed only a matter of time before they scored.
A foul just outside the penalty area gave them a free kick which Gareth Williams curled towards goal but Dean did well to punch the ball clear.
Slack marking proved costly for the visitors just past the quarter hour when David Pounder’s right wing corner played to the near post was headed home by Fawcett to give Whitley a well deserved lead.
Three minutes later Callum Anderson battled his way forward from midfield but when through on goal his shot lacked sufficient power and was pushed away to safety.
Gibson was next to burst through, this time on the right wing, and his cross found Mason whose lob was just held by Dean as he back-pedalled towards goal.
Again Dean was his side’s saviour when Fawcett went past his man and crossed to Anderson who was denied by the keeper.
Gary Ormston then headed over the bar from Williams’ corner.
On the half hour Mason was played clear on the left and took the ball round Dean but from a narrow angle fired his shot against the post.
Fawcett was tormenting Stokesley at this stage, and when he broke away again he cut the ball back to Ormston whose shot was deflected just wide of the target.
Paul Robinson then tried an ambitious shot from more than 25 yards out but the ball cleared the bar.
Despite creating numerous chances, the home side had only one goal to show for their superiority at the interval.
And if there was a criticism of their play it was their tendency to over elaborate and walk the ball through the defence when a more direct approach might have been more productive.
The second half began with Mason chipping the ball over the Stokesley bar, but ten minutes into the period, Bay’s young strikers were replaced by Lee Kerr and Paul Chow.
The expectation was that the experienced duo would create more problems for the Yorkshiremen, and Kerr quickly tested Dean with a powerful shot that the keeper did well to block with his feet, and then when Kerr broke clear, his cross from the right found Chow whose header crashed off the bar with Dean beaten.
To their credit, Stokesley were proving a more organised and determined side in the second half, and with the heavy pitch beginning to take its toll, players on both sides were tiring and goal scoring opportunities were becoming more restricted.
In recent matches, notably in the game against Dunstable, the officials have controlled games well and have remained relatively inconspicuous, with bookings kept to a minimum.
In this game, which was played in a good spirit by both sides, the latter stages were interrupted by a series of decisions and what app[eared to be unnecessary cautions.
This resulted in four Whitley players being booked for minor offences when a quiet word was all that was necessary.
With 15 minutes remaining, Fawcett might have got a second when he was played through on goal but Dean blocked his shot.
Adam Emson and Anthony Hume both went close for Stokesley but Kyle Hayes in the Whitley Bay goal was rarely tested.
David Pounder, tracking back to support the defence made vital clearances while Gibson, Darren Timmons, Williams and especially Callum Anderson played with assurance at the back to ensure
The result meant Whitley Bay kept their 13th clean sheet in the league this season, which is the best defensive record in the two STL Northern League divisions.
This was not a classic Bay performance but the three points keeps them in touch with the top four.
Their form since Christmas has been outstanding, with ten wins from 11 games.
Confidence levels will be high as they begin a series of very tough games against their closest rivals in the next four weeks as they cha;;enge for a top two spot.
Whitley Bay: Hayes, Gibson (Robson 71 mins), Anderson, Timmons, Ormston, Williams, Fawcett, Pounder, Mason (Kerr 56 mins), Taylor (Chow 56 mins), Robinson. Subs not used: Rowe, McFarlane.